Dr. Singh Goes to Washington: Why US-India Relations Still Matter

The potential for what the United States and India can achieve together remains significant, even in light of the obstacles afflicting bilateral ties at the moment. The two countries are witnessing a convergence of interests in an increasing number of critical and diverse arenas.
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With President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh scheduled to meet today in Washington regarding a host of different issues, expectations surrounding their bilateral talks are modest at best. Although the meeting constitutes the culmination of a series of high-level exchanges that have taken place between the two countries over the past year, neither side expects the upcoming talks to result in any significant breakthroughs or substantive developments in the U.S.-India relationship.

The meeting comes at a time when the president and prime minister are confronting profound challenges both at home and abroad. In the United States, President Obama's agenda continues to be stymied by a recalcitrant, polarized Congress threatening to shut down the government while the country's economic recovery remains uneven. Chemical weapons use in Syria and a potential diplomatic opening with Iran have forced him to reorient Washington's foreign policy back toward the Middle East despite the administration's initial efforts to "pivot" toward Asia.

In India, Singh's governing Congress Party has been hobbled by a series of unending corruption scandals while the unprecedented plunge in the value of the rupee in conjunction with rising inflation have further compounded the country's mounting economic woes. Foreign policy officials in New Delhi are preparing for the prime minister's UN meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, as the decades-old Kashmir dispute continues to simmer.

Simply put, the United States and India are each focused elsewhere. There is a growing sense that ties between the two countries have markedly cooled, and the feeling of unlimited opportunity that pervaded the relationship just four years ago has palpably waned. Several differences have emerged between the two countries, including a multitude of increasingly acrimonious trade disputes, the adequacy of New Delhi's current patent protection regime, the impact of India's nuclear liability legislation, proposed changes to U.S. immigration rules, and the impending withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. As a result, a rather large chasm seems to exist between the rhetoric and reality surrounding the so-called U.S.-India "strategic partnership."

Against such a backdrop, one might be tempted to conclude that neither country should make the strategic partnership a priority at present, or worse, that U.S.-India relations have plateaued, are adrift, or were oversold as some critics have alleged.

This would be a mistake. Despite the challenges facing the bilateral relationship, a few simple, but undeniable, truths remain regarding the strategic partnership. First, US-India relations are stronger now than they ever have been in their history, multidimensional in character and multifaceted in scope. Unprecedented progress has been seen in virtually every area of cooperation including defense, trade, development, education, space, energy, and security. The U.S. military relationship with India is arguably the fastest growing one in the world as evidenced recently by Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter's highly lauded trip to India earlier this month. Bilateral trade and investment has quadrupled since 2006 to nearly $100 billion. One need only look back 10 years to the state of U.S.-India relations to understand just how far -- and fast -- bilateral ties have come and grown. Second, the underlying strategic logic of the relationship remains sound even in light of all the difficulties currently vexing U.S.-India ties. Unveiled in 2005, the strategic partnership was predicated on the premise that a closer, deeper bilateral relationship with New Delhi advanced U.S. interests in several different ways. Architects of the partnership viewed India as a stabilizing force and critical partner in South Asia, particularly one that could help manage China's own unpredictable rise and counter a bevy of enduring global threats such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Additionally, cultivating stronger economic ties with one of the world's largest economies and fastest growing middle classes also compelled a greater degree of cooperation. The two countries had already commenced greater engagement in this arena, and embarking upon a strategic partnership would serve to accelerate this trend. And perhaps most importantly, the United States and India both recognized that they shared many of the key values so critical to the strength and durability of their respective democracies: secularism, pluralism, and genuine respect for the rule of law. These key motivating principles animating U.S.-India ties are no less true now than they were almost a decade ago.

Finally, the potential for what the United States and India can achieve together remains significant, even in light of the obstacles afflicting bilateral ties at the moment. The two countries are witnessing a convergence of interests in an increasing number of critical and diverse arenas. The momentum behind the relationship -- while undoubtedly stalled at times -- appears to have become irreversible. Ultimately, what binds the two countries together far exceeds those differences that drive them apart.

The meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Singh today represents a powerful demonstration of their commitment to the U.S.-India strategic partnership. At a time when many are questioning the value and importance of ties between Washington and New Delhi, the talks serve as critical reminder of the importance that both leaders -- and their respective governments -- attach to the relationship. Along with their recent predecessors, both President Obama and Prime Minister Singh have built a solid foundation for U.S.-India relations that will endure long after they have left office. Their meeting tomorrow is one more important step toward ensuring that remains the case.